The federal Rural Health Clinic (RHC) Program, established in 1977, pioneered important new approaches to providing and paying for healthcare in rural areas. Targeting rural Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries with inadequate access to primary care services, the RHC Program introduced rural-relevant policy tools including cost-based reimbursement for small primary care providers and a team-based care model that partnered nurse practitioners and physician assistants with primary-care physicians as a requirement for recognition as a Rural Health Clinic. Since the program’s inception, Rural Health Clinics have become an important source of primary care with 4,482 RHCs serving 2.17 million Medicare beneficiaries in 2019.The program, however, is showing its age and needs updating to remain relevant and effective in the current health care market.
Despite its success, the challenges underlying the creation of the Program still exist. Twenty-six percent of rural Americans are unable to obtain needed care. They are older, poorer, and sicker with higher rates of chronic illness and worse health outcomes; suffer from higher rates of heart disease, cancer, unintentional injuries, lower respiratory disease, and stroke; and receive fewer wellness and preventive services.
Although Rural Health Clinics remain relevant to the needs of rural areas, the primary care environment has evolved since its inception. Modernizing the program would help Rural Health Clinics to succeed under value-based payment systems that tie reimbursement to the quality of care provided and reward providers for efficiency and effectiveness. This article suggests opportunities to do so by building on its foundation of team-based care and rural-relevant payment models, encouraging Rural Health Clinics to participate in practice transformation and quality reporting initiatives, and enhancing the capacity of the clinics to serve rural communities.
Rural areas face a chronic shortage of primary care services due to an insufficient supply of new primary-care physicians, an aging workforce, and a maldistribution of physicians across urban and rural areas.In 2017, the Government Accounting Office estimated a shortage of more than 20,000 primary-care physicians in rural areas by 2025. In 2020, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) estimated that this gap could widen to 55,200 by 2033.These estimates do not reflect lower levels of care received by rural populations. To achieve health equity and reach population health goals for body weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, blood glucose, and smoking, the AAMC estimated that an additional 10,130 primary-care physicians are needed in rural areas. Although the growth of new nurse practitioners and physician assistants can potentially offset physician shortages, they are also inequitably distributed across urban and rural areas. Given these projections, new thinking is needed to increase primary care capacity by reallocating clinical responsibilities across an expanded care team comprised of licensed and non-licensed staff.
The Changing Rural Primary Care Environment
As the foundation of a high-performing health system, primary care is necessary to achieve the quadruple aim of health care – enhanced patient experience, better outcomes, lower costs, and improved clinician satisfaction. Rural primary care providers have assumed a greater role in providing essential services including mental health, substance use, and chronic care management as well as supporting population health by providing wellness services, immunizations, counseling, screening for asymptomatic disease, and preventive care to assist patients in avoiding preventable conditions. The use of electronic health records, patient registries, and digital health, including telehealth, to provide services has grown dramatically as has interest in team-based care, including the use of community health workers, and an emphasis on value instead of volume.